Windswept

I. TACKING

One of the fitness chicks I follow is Tracy Steen. She’s a strong smart woman in her 50s who posts workouts and interviews and lectures, all geared toward helping folks get healthier. Over the years, she and I have gotten to know one another a bit, at least virtually. Our daughters are the same age. Last year I introduced her to a friend who wrote a book about her eating disorder, and Tracy hosted her on one of her live feeds.

Anyway, this past February, Tracy packed up all her weights and fitness gear and relocated to St. Thomas for two months. She wanted to get away from the harsh British Columbia winters and film her workouts with the ocean as her backdrop, instead of her basement wall. She also went, she admitted with nervous honesty, that she’d never traveled or lived alone and was anxious to give it a go.

Every day I checked her new workout uploads, admiring her ability to exercise so strenuously in such heat and humidity. (If you are at all acquainted with me, you know I can hardly brush my teeth in hot and sticky environs.) I tried following along on a couple of the workouts, but watching Tracy having to constantly move her yoga mat out of the rain or skirting the ever-present reptiles and insects scurrying about, made my muscles tense up. Sure, that brilliant blue ocean behind her was picturesque enough, but, darn, I missed her cool clean basement gym.

On Instagram, Tracy posted stories of her taking walks along the beach, going into town, cooking delicious meals. In most of them she was, as she’d planned to be, alone. It was obvious she was fine; content even, but I silently wondered if maybe she wanted to be more social. Perhaps make a new friend or two.

II. FIRST MATE

I attended Sonoma State University back when it was a small laid-back hippie college surrounded by wild mustard fields. Its dorms were famous for being named after grape varieties (I lived in Chardonnay) and you could minor in enology. The cafeteria served vegan meals before it was even a thing. And, if you wanted to lounge topless by the pool or eat magic mushrooms and dance around the duck pond, no one took much notice.

During my sophomore year I met Douglas, a tow-haired southern California beach babe who lived for adventure. Up until the first time he kissed me, I’d spent most of my days hanging out in dark spaces writing sulky poetry. Douglas hauled me out of my dorm room and into the wilderness. We hiked every Sonoma County park; backpacked throughout the Sierras; and during our first summer together, we road-tripped the entire California coast. When he joined the sailing team, he pushed me to sign on too.

At first, I was a complete and utter klutz on the Flying Junior sailboat we raced. I tripped on ropes. Fell overboard often. And my wind-reading skills were laughably nonexistent. With Doug’s help, I was soon jibing like a well-practiced amateur: ducking under the boom without getting a concussion; quickly tugging the ropes taut and hiking my tiny frame out over the sea, my long dark hair skimming the sea’s surface as we flew through the salty air.

Fast tacking and fierce determination aside, we never ever won a regatta. Our old boat wasn’t as efficient as the fancier, newer boats the teams from Stanford and the UC schools raced. While we competed in cut-offs and bathing suits, the other teams wore uniforms. To be sure, we were a ragtag club, but we had a lot of fun.

Our losing streak came to an abrupt end when Peter Holmberg transferred over from a junior college. A white guy with sandy-colored dreadlocks who wore a grommet as an earring, Peter’s parents had honeymooned on St. Thomas, and never left. Peter learned to sail when he was six. He lived and breathed sailing.

Naturally, Peter joined our team and soon after we unanimously voted him Captain, he managed to convince a local winery to sponsor the team and buy us a better boat. After that, we started winning. A lot. Peter’s aggression on the water intimidated me, but I marveled at his ability to capture even the slightest breeze and turn it into forward momentum—momentum that, more often that not, sailed us into first place.

III. TRADE WINDS

Doug and I broke up but we’ve held onto a deep, if intermittent, friendship. A couple years ago I submitted an essay I wrote about him to Modern Love (rejected). As for Peter: he went on to win a hulls-worth of championships, including a silver medal in the 1988 Olympics and the 2007 America’s Cup. Like all the people in my life who made even a tiny impact, I never stopped thinking about Peter. I know he still lives on St. Thomas because I send him birthday emails every year (October 4), and usually get a quick “This is what I’m up to” message back.

Which is why, when Tracy moved there I thought, “Hey, I bet Peter would be happy to take Tracy sailing or maybe he could show her around St. Thomas!”

So I wrote him, asking if he, the coolest dude on the island, would consider inviting my “friend” Tracy on an outing.

He replied:

I would be happy to meet your fitness chick and give her an adventure with the coolest dude on the island!!!  I don’t have a sailing biz or anything, but I have a cool little boat and could take her boating with us one day. I’m sure she’d love it.  

And maybe you could do me a favor-

My sweetie just published her own book and is doing all she can to get it out there.  Not to get rich, but to share her story and hopefully help the planet. Could I connect her to a rock star like you to help her with ideas, tips and advice?

“Shit,” I uttered.

Here I’d gone and dug myself a favor hole from which there was no escape. If I replied, “Sorry, Peter, but I don’t have the time to read, let alone help, your sweetie with her planet-helping book,” I knew I’d sound like a selfish jerk.

So I did what I normally do: I ignored the email, leaving Tracy to her solitary wanderings.

And me to my guilty conscious.

The next day I wrote Peter and told him I’d be happy to help said sweetie.

IV. YAWING

By way of email, Peter introduced me to his GF, Sharon Wallen, who introduced me to her book, HATCHED: How Nine Little Chicks Cracked My Shell. When I read the description of it online:

Imagine yourself in the midst of your busy, modern life. There you are – overwhelmed, perhaps even teetering on the edge of exhaustion – when your child asks to hatch a bunch of chicken eggs. Your blood pressure instantly skyrockets when you think of adding even one more thing to your list … and a quick No falls from your lips.

But what sort of miracles might spring forth if you said Yes! instead?

I might have groaned a little. It sounded so…so…sincere. I could tell it was going to be a lot like the many (and I mean many) self-published memoirs I’d been asked to read, edit or write blurbs for over the years. Not that I hadn’t hit on some pockets of gold whilst traipsing through the memoir mines, but more often than not, navel-gazing autobiographers spend too much effort on recounting the past in all its semi-dull detail, and not enough time building enough tension and/or suspense to keep the pages flipping. Just because it’s a personal history, doesn’t mean it can’t read like a good novel [I’m looking at you, EG].

Regardless of my disinterest, I had to fulfill my side of the bargain. Right after I introduced Peter to Tracy, I wrote Sharon a long email glistening with ideas on how to promote her book. I sent her links to book marketing websites; went over social media strategies; critiqued her website; invited her to join a memoir group on Facebook. It wasn’t as if I was an expert—I’d done a crap job promoting my own memoir—but at least I could give her some immediate ideas.

Sharon wrote to thank me and attached a PDF of her book, adding that there was, of course, no pressure to read it.

Well, I read it.

You know what? I loved it.

LOVED. IT.

And I believe it truly can help the planet. Or, at the very least, it helped me see why saying YES can open me up to magical thinking. To a life well-lived.

Here’s the 5-star review I posted on Goodreads and Amazon:

You know the old saying, “Big things come in small packages”? It was exactly how I felt after reading the beautifully-written “Hatched: How Nine Little Chicks Cracked My Shell” by Sharon Wallen. Coming in at a bantam weight of only 145 pages, I devoured this memoir in a single sitting. It was that good. Wallen’s story begins when her young son asks if they can hatch some fertilized eggs from a farm they’d just visited. Like any harried wife and mother who is juggling a blended family, work, and a marriage that has run into trouble, her immediate reply is “no.” But then…then she begins to think about the person she used to be—the person who was open to the universe and its infinite possibilities. The person who used to say “yes.” So, she does. She brings home the eggs and a makeshift incubator. New lives break from those tiny shells, and with them, the perfect metaphor for what it meant for Wallen, herself, to break free from her own limited beliefs. Filled with humor, honesty and intelligence, Wallen has written a small but powerful story that is sure to resonate with anyone who needs reminding that “there are many ways to practice saying YES.” Indeed.

V. BERTH

Tracy and Peter never did meet up, BUT, because of Tracy’s yearning for solitude, I’ve begun what is destined to be a life-long friendship with a smart, beautiful, and inspiring human—a woman I happened to meet because she happened to be the new sweetie of a man who taught me how to harness the wind a million years ago and I happened to decide that he needed to befriend someone I hardly knew in the first place.

Don’t you just love it when you think you’re doing someone else a favor and you end up getting way more in return?

Yeah, me too.

 

 

NDA: Or, When A Diamond Is Not Forever

I.

For some time now I’ve been wanting to write an essay about losing my mom’s diamond ring soon after she died. I’d been the keeper of the “Kusel Diamond.” I was the person who was supposed to have kept it safe.

Only, I didn’t. 

The more I thought about what went down the more I figured it would make for a pretty good story. But I wasn’t sure how to tell it. As I so often do, I asked my writer friend Margot (who has a creepy new YA thriller coming out this summer) for her advice. “Hey, I am trying to come up with an angle about how to write about my mom’s diamond getting stolen,” I wrote her. “Like I don’t want to just write about what happened.”

Margot suggested I think about why its disappearance was significant to me.

So, with her prompt loitering in the back of my head, I sat down to write my dark and curious tale. Here’s how the essay started out:   

On Tuesday morning I was sitting at my desk casually reading the news when I panicked. It suddenly occurred to me that it was already midway through April, and I hadn’t yet gotten an email confirming that my safe deposit box had been automatically renewed for another year.

“They wouldn’t just cancel it and toss the stuff, would they?” I asked my husband, imagining some low-level bank clerk haphazardly tossing my mother’s jewelry into a plastic trash bin.

“Call them,” he said. “Or, better yet, why don’t you actually leave the house and walk up to the bank and talk to someone in person.” His snarky remark went un-replied-to. I knew he thought I’d become far too covanoid (adjective, [kohv-uh-noid] 1. of, like, or experiencing paranoia about catching Covid), and had a hard time going out in public. I didn’t love being a shut-in, but yeah, I’d become one.

I called them.

Turned out my renewal wasn’t supposed to happen until May. I thanked the guy, sat back, and exhaled my relief. The few remaining pieces of my mother’s treasures were still snug as a bug in a rug in a slim metal box behind a thick iron door.

Sort of like the way I felt not going outside.

But then I flashed on the one thing that was missing from that box. The BIG ring. The ring I wrote about in an earlier blog post. The ring that my father wished he could steal back from his ex-wife, even if it meant cutting off her finger.

The ring that was going to be mine when she died.

II.

Anyone who’s been tagging along with me for the last few years (thank you, friends and followers) knows that my mother suffered from dementia. When I moved her into a memory care facility she insisted on taking her jewelry with her. Mind you, all the pieces she wore at the time were B-list baubles. A diamond “F” for Florine. A simple gold chain she wore around her neck. A few shiny rings purchased at TJ Maxx or Marshalls. The valuable stuff—the jewelry I’d surreptitiously absconded with before I moved her from California to Florida—was here in Vermont. Just up the street from where I live. In that safe deposit box. Number 169.

By the time she died from Covid-induced pneumonia in a $6000/month memory care center that didn’t have enough oxygen on hand, every single piece of jewelry she moved in with had somehow “disappeared.”

She passed, much to my shock and sadness, totally unadorned.

III.

At this point in the essay Margot’s prompt once again poked me on the shoulder. I was supposed to be talking about why the disappearance of my mother’s ring was significant and I’d only gotten as far as talking about her death and then, while remembering how all her costume jewelry got stolen in what was supposed to be a safe and nurturing environment, I got so worked up I had to stop writing and go for a walk.

IV.

With all that was happening in the world, and in my personal life, I honestly no longer cared that much about the ring. I didn’t care that my mother wanted it to be kept in the family; handed down from me to my daughter and then to her daughter, ad infinitum. That it was supposed to be forever known as the KUSEL DIAMOND. I knew I would never wear it. I knew Loy would never wear it.

My older brother suggested we slice it up into three separate diamond rings so that each of us could have “a piece of mom.”

I just wanted the money. Money I could use to travel to Australia or Patagonia, places I’d been bucket-listing for years.

When I saw this ad in the local paper

I acted on it. I phoned the store, told the owner what I had in my possession and made an appointment for the following week. When I showed up I was a bit put off that he wasn’t wearing a mask. Mind you, this was the summer of 2020, when the pandemic was in full throttle. I immediately disliked him.

Regardless. I was already there and he was deep into ooh-ing and aah-ing over my personal treasures, complimenting their exquisiteness, speculating over their value. After he compiled a list of all Mom’s watches and rings and pins and bracelets, he told me how much he’d pay me to buy them outright. When he got to the 8-carat diamond, he asked me what I thought it was worth.

“I’m pretty sure my father said he paid $60,000 for it, but that was back in 1970. It’s got to be worth even more than that now,” I said, sounding like the desperate, adventure-deprived shut-in that I was.

He peered at me with pity in his eyes, as if I were but a silly child who thought money really did grow on old rings. “I doubt that very much,” he said with too much self-satisfaction. Then he asked one of his “experts” from the back room to come take a look. Said expert donned an eye magnifier, mumbled something, then looked up. “It’s got a lot of occlusions.”

The owner nodded knowingly. “I’ll give you $27,000 for it.”

I felt as if I’d been slapped. “What? No way.” I looked at the ring. Surely something that big and that shiny had to be worth more than $9000 a kid.

Sensing my cynicism, the man suggested that if I wanted to ascertain the ring’s true value, I should get it certified by the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). “If you want to do that, it’ll cost you $1250. I’ll send it out tomorrow. You’ll get it back in about a week.”

“Okay,” I said, wanting to get out of the shop as quickly as possible. “Go for it.”

Since he had to list something on the receipt, he put $60,000 in the space on the paper next to the diamond.

A week after I paid $1250 to the mask-less man to overnight the Kusel Diamond to the GIA in New York City, I received a phone call. Sounding as if he’d just stepped on a 6-inch cactus quill, the man in the jewelry store informed me that the diamond had been lost in transit.

Before I could faint from the shock, I collected myself and hit RECORD on my phone.

“What do you mean lost?”

He told me that the ring never arrived at the GIA and the address on the package had been changed. I had a few million more questions to ask, but at that point I was so distressed and angry I said I had to go and hung up. 

The day after that call, the co-owner of the store (whom I never met), phoned me up and offered me $30,000 in compensation, “even though it’s not worth more than $15k.”

When I apprised him of the fact that his colleague only days ago offered me $27,000, he postulated that it was because in their store they’d be able to sell it “for the bling factor. Someone who doesn’t care about the GIA certification,” he said. I came right out and asked him what the store would have tried to sell it for. He said $35,000, to which I replied, “Then you should pay me $35,000,” to which he agreed.

Up to this point in time, no apologies had been tendered.

With both my hackles and suspicions raised, I let my brothers know the scoop. The younger one, a business owner who uses FedEx services on a daily basis, said he’d get one of “his guys” to look into it. Meanwhile, I fumed. I raged. I paced. I waited for more information to stream in.

A day later my brother’s guy sent us details of the FedEx tracking sheet:

Thursday , 9/03/2020
11:50 am
NEW YORK, NY
Delivered
9:00 am
NEW YORK, NY
At local FedEx facility
9:00 am
NEW YORK, NY
At local FedEx facility
5:34 am
NEWARK, NJ
Arrived at FedEx location
4:11 am
INDIANAPOLIS, IN
Departed FedEx location
Wednesday , 9/02/2020
11:57 pm
INDIANAPOLIS, IN
Arrived at FedEx location
10:50 pm
Delivery option requested
Hold at FedEx OnSite request received – Check back later for shipment status
7:17 pm

WILLISTON, VT
Left FedEx origin facility
3:32 pm
WILLISTON, VT
Picked up
9:46 am

As well as sharing his observations: 

Never went on a delivery truck. Someone put through a hold at FedEx onsite at 10:50PM the day it was shipped.  I assume it was done online. Not sure how they gamed the system.  My understanding is that in FedEx Delivery Manager, only residential packages can be directed to be held at FedEx on-site locations. Not packages going to commercial locations.  This certainly points to an inside job.

Furious, I was ready to drive to the store and hold the jeweler at gunpoint until he confessed his guilt. But that would have meant leaving the house, so instead I called him. He was, he claimed, completely innocent and as dumbfounded as I was. He, too, had done a thorough investigation and this is what he believed transpired:

Although he shipped the ring to the correct address (53 West 46th Street, Unit 500), it somehow got delivered to 530 Fifth Ave (which is a Walgreens two blocks away), where someone signed for it as “K GIA,” the intended recipient.  

“Here’s the scam, Lisa,” he said. “Someone figured out that in that New York zip code, they carry GIA packages. They must have figured out that that driver had a GIA package and they pretended they were GIA. I heard from FedEx they carried New York State IDs. Two men approached the truck and they took the packages from the driver in front of 530 5th Avenue, which is a Walgreens.”

“Come again?” I could make neither heads nor tails out of this scenario. “Why did the driver go to the wrong address?”

“Sounds like it was a new driver, untrained, and he got approached by some guys who said do you have any GIA packages? Due to Covid we’re not really open. We’re picking up the GIA packages. Here’s our badge.”

“But it said it was signed for by the receptionist at the front desk of the GIA. Who did that signing?”

“I’m not sure. But their driver gave it to someone else. I get nervous with your questions.”

He gets nervous? I was still so confused, but no amount of prodding could clear it up. What it all came down to was this: the Kusel Diamond was gone.

He continued: “This is very upsetting for me as well….this is the first time in fifteen years I’ve actually lost a package…I can make it whole by paying what I put on the receipt and that’s going to be a hardship for me. The reality is that stone is worth less than $60,000…but I put $60,000 because that was the declared value when you came in. But it’s not worth that….it’s a fifteen to $20,000 stone…however, I don’t want any problems. I want to protect my reputation, but I will pay what was on the receipt.”

A hardship for him? That made no sense. “Won’t FedEx also pay you the $60,000 back?” I asked, knowing full well they would.

The answer to that question was answered through his lawyer, who by now, was drawing up the terms of the payment:

There is no FedEx claim.  We elected to get coverage from our insurance company.  We are covered for $70K for this loss and will pay you out $61,250 ($60K which Lisa declared as the value + $1250 GIA cert fee).

So, um, no hardship. For him, that is.

For me, it became a psychological and familial hornet’s nest. Neither brother wanted to settle. They wanted to SUE FedEx, the store, the jeweler, and anyone who had ever said a bad word about our mother. They didn’t think the $60,000 offer was enough. They consulted lawyers. Assuming it’d already been sold down some shady back alley, they scoured the internet auction sites, searching for the diamond (okay, so I was guilty of doing this, too).

I got tired of feeling angry. I accepted the terms, which included, among other things, signing a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). I was not allowed to ever defame the proprietor or his business by writing about him. I was not allowed to mention his name. Ever.

I drove to the store, grabbed the check (which was made out to my husband because the trust was in his name),

wired my brothers $20,000 each, and moved on.

V. (Where I return to the ever-illusive prompt)

Except, I haven’t. Not entirely. It’s been almost two years since the crime took place and I’ve yet to find peace. Maybe because I don’t entirely understand how what they say happened actually happened. (What kind of driver would EVER just hand over a package to two guys claiming to be who they obviously weren’t? And who CHANGED the form the night it was shipped?)

I feel as if, somehow, when the bad people stole the ring, they also stole a piece of my mother. I know, I know: I’d planned to sell it anyway, but having it appropriated without my permission, by nefarious (and possibly sleazy insider) means, has left an ugly stain on the memory of my mother wearing that ring at my brothers’ bar mitzvahs, my graduations, my wedding—all those special occasions that called for her to drive to the bank. There, she would open her safe deposit box, slip the ring onto her finger, then twist the diamond to the inside of her hand so as to conceal it from would-be robbers.

She’d keep it like that, the sharp tips of the marquis pressing into the soft fleshy parts of her ring finger and left palm, through the entire car ride or plane trip to wherever it was she was traveling; hiding it; keeping it safe; until the moment of the big event; when she would turn it upright for all the world to see.

When she would, at last, let it catch the light.

Of Editors and Egg Salad

Last week a friend of mine who has a memoir coming out emailed me to ask if I could introduce her to Lauren Hunter (not her real name), the Books Editor at  _____Magazine. Realizing what my friend had in mind, I was quick to cut her off at the pass: convincing Lauren Hunter to read a book written by anyone but a star author, I warned, was akin to convincing MAGA fans to wear face masks.

Autumn 2001

A few days after my agent sent out my book of interrelated short stories to a dozen or so NYC editors he called to say that the Lauren Hunter, a much venerated editor at at top publishing company, wanted to chat with me in person.

“What does she want to know?” I asked nervously.

“She probably wants to learn a little more about you as a writer. What she can expect from working with you, that sort of thing,” he replied in soothing tones. “Don’t be nervous, Lisa,” he said to the pregnant woman pacing the floor.

The next morning, just as I was about to pass out from hyperventilating, Lauren phoned. I’d spent the entire sleepless night rehearsing. I’d tell her how I’d been penning fiction since I was a tyke; that it was my dream to be a novelist; that I would be open to any changes she had in mind; that I already had an idea for another book; and that I was a really fast writer.

All but the last statement were true.

“Hello, this is Lisa,” I said in a deep steady voice, hoping I’d sound smart and stable; not jumpy and nauseated (which was exactly how I felt). Irrationally, I worried that through the miles of phone line Lauren would be able to see that I was wearing red flannel pajama bottoms and a threadbare oversized Sonoma State University sweatshirt. That somehow she’d know I was the last person on the planet whose photo belonged on the back cover of a book.

“Hi Lisa. This is Lauren Hunter.”

“Thanks for calling.” I replied as I rubbed my four-months-along belly. I so didn’t want my growing baby to feel my tension.

“I wanted to chat a little about Other Fish in the Sea, your wonderful book.”

And then, before I could launch into my spiel; before I could prove my authorial worthiness, she began listing off all the reasons why I should choose her over all the other editors on the planet. 

Spring 2004

When, during a phone conversation I stupidly mentioned to Lauren that I would be in NYC to visit my husband’s parents, she suggested we get together for lunch to discuss “some things.”

I honestly didn’t want to. We’d met in person, briefly, twice before and she was not of the warm-and-fuzzy ilk. Throughout our time working on my first book together she came off as a detached, distant editor. It was her assigned roll, after all. She was the demanding wrangler of my creative gurgitations. The critical gatekeeper who held the keys to my would-be writing career.

She terrified me.

We agreed to meet at Café Lalo, the same place where Tom Hanks met Meg Ryan in “You’ve Got Mail.” I made sure I was the first to arrive so I could find a table and not have to do that awkward pre-sit-dance—you know the one I’m talking about: it’s when you and the person you’re meeting have to stand in front of the hostess and you shuffle your feet and put your hands in your pocket or mindlessly flap the notebook you’re holding up and down in idiotic waves while the blonde babe behind the podium scans the room looking for a vacant spot and you have no idea if the vacuous small talk about the weather or the crowded subways, is making you sound like a moron.

Anyway, I got there in plenty of time to avoid that and was shown to a two-top at the back of the place. Instinctively, I knew Lauren would want to sit facing the restaurant. She’d want to have the commanding view of the café’s comings and goings. She would be want to see and be seen.

So, duh, I sat facing the brick wall, and, because I had no idea if she’d recognize me by the back of my head, I had to stay twisted around—my hands on the top of the curved slightly splintery wooden chair—so I could catch her when she walked in.

I stayed like that—my upper body curled uncomfortably backwards—for some ten anxious minutes. When she finally breezed in and removed a pair of fashionable sunglasses from her fashionable face, I waved at her like an excited schoolkid who sees her mom waiting at the bus stop after a particularly hard day of kindergarten.

She glided over, saying, “Excuse me,” to the people at the table next to ours after accidentally bumping it while squeezing her way into the slim space between us. Before we even exchanged a word, a perky waitress appeared. “Are you ready to order?” Lauren picked up the menu I’d arranged on the table, gave it a quick glance, and said, “I’ll have the egg salad and a coffee.”

When the waitress looked at me I hesitated. I’d already read the menu three times and had become so overwhelmed with nervousness and nausea, that I’d lost my appetite. (Yes, I was a published author in her thirties; yet I still suffered mightily from Imposter Syndrome. Part of me actually believed Lauren had invited me to lunch to fire me.)

Which she did, sort of. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

“I’m good with just coffee,” I said to the waitress, apologetically.

“So, let’s talk about Hat Trick,” Lauren said a heartbeat after the waitress left. “It’s good, but it still needs a lot of work.”

I’d like to be able to tell you what happened after that, but because of the egg salad, I remember little of the remainder of that lunch date. What I do remember is the waitress placing a huge plate of food in front of Lauren. On it sat an enormous heap of creamy yellow egg salad. Next to it were two slices of perfectly-toasted bread, some paper-thin circles of red onion, and a couple of thick rounds of red juicy tomatoes.

One glance at Lauren’s food and suddenly I was famished. Abandoned-dog-on-the-street-starved. As I watched her daintily convey the onions to the outskirts of her plate before taking three tiny bites of the egg salad and then putting down her fork, my stomach growled and my mouth watered. I wanted nothing more in life than for her to offer me a bite. To say, “I’m done. Do you want the rest?”

Because, yeah, I would have eaten the rest. It was all I could do to keep from reaching across the tiny expanse of table, grabbing a piece of bread and slathering it with that green-herb-flecked egg salad. The salad she was clearly NOT EATING.

She continued to talk about the faults in my plotline while I stared incredulously. Was she really going to leave all that delicious food uneaten. Who does that?

When the waitress reappeared to fill our coffee mugs, Lauren stated, “I’m finished. You can take it,” with me dying a slow deprived death across from her.

Only when the sweet smell of the neglected egg salad had finally drifted away was I able to concentrate on what she was saying and what she was saying was something along the lines of, “…and so I won’t be your editor anymore, but I know you’ll be in good hands with whomever they assign you to…” Lauren was letting me know that she was going to work for another publisher.

Winter 2018

Not surprisingly, Lauren and I lost touch. For a few years after we parted ways we exchanged short semi-personal emails catching one another up. After those ended I occasionally bumped into her on Facebook and Twitter—liking this; commenting about that—but eventually our relationship, like Borders bookstores, closed for good.

Then one morning, while sitting in my dentist’s waiting room, I started flipping around an old issue of  _____Magazine when suddenly I saw her name. I already knew that after Lauren handed me off to an editor who’d hated my writing, she edited a nonfiction book that became a worldwide bestseller. And, that, following a few more stints in the publishing world, she became the Books Editor for a popular women’s magazine. But, for some reason, seeing her name next to a book review in a magazine I’d never actually read was startling. I looked over at another woman in the waiting room and tried catching her eye. I desperately wanted to say, “See this person? She edited my first book!” with my index finger stuck defiantly next to the printed words: LAUREN HUNTER. I was aglow with misconceived pride. Ridiculous though it was, I felt as if this vicariously made me a member of the all-star literary world.

By the time my clean teeth and I arrived back home I’d decided that Lauren owed me. After all, she’d jilted me for, for, what—a VIP with an important point to make? She’d dumped me and my words onto the desk of an editor who didn’t “buy that Peter would ever leave his wife for Mona.”

Plus, she’d hadn’t offered me even one bite of that egg salad.

The least she could do, the frenzied voice in my head argued, was REVIEW MY BOOK.

I emailed her an incredibly polite, humble and slightly beggy note asking if she’d, ah, be willing to read RASH, my new memoir, which was “really funny and had gotten some terrific reviews.” I closed out the letter reminding her who I was, just in case. I assumed I wouldn’t hear back from her. I wasn’t a bestselling writer or a celebrity or even a person of minor interest.

I assumed correctly.

I told my friend that yes, I knew Lauren way back when, and if I could get her book reviewed, I would. But I had no pull with Lauren, I regretfully informed her. I had some back in 2001 when she thought I was the next “it” girl author. I had even less in 2004, when I coveted that egg salad on her plate. Now, what little connection we’d had was long gone.

After typing “Sorry. Good luck,” I hit SEND and then sat back and stared out my window toward Lake Champlain, watching the small whitecaps bouncing over the breakwater in the distance.

Okay, it was a bummer she didn’t write me, but it was still pretty gratifying to know that the Lauren Hunter had been my first-ever editor. She had thought I was so talented that she’d convinced her bosses to pay me a lot of money for my words. She had ushered me into the next phase of my life. She’d pushed me to be a better writer. She’d made my childhood dreams come true.

If anyone owed anyone anything, I owed her. If ever we were to meet again for lunch, I’d still give her the seat not facing the back wall. Only this time I’d order my own plate of food.

And I would be sure to offer her a bite.

 

 

Robert Bly Died Today

 

In May of 2006, I sent this email:

Hello, I have no idea if this email will find its way into Mr. Bly’s lap, but it is the only email link I can find at the moment.

I was just perusing some of my early poems (I’m actually a published novelist, but dabbled, you know…) and came across a poem I wrote in honor of Robert Bly some years ago. I’d very much like to pass it on to him.
Blessings,
lisa

ODE TO ROBERT BLY
I heard him first
in a small room in Sausalito
I discovered poetry
among beaded skirts, patchouli oil and
fading peace signs,
the sound of music boiling under water
words sculpted by the dead and brought to life
by Robert Bly.

Plucking strings of a flat wooden dulcimer he tossed
threads of silk to float across the still air in the room
in front of me.

He caught the words of Rainer Maria Rilke
like a prized swordfish, iridescent and fighting
he gutted and cleaned and wrapped
and held them out to me, a dead poet’s catch
and my feelings, like Rilke’s
“my feeling sinks, as if standing on fishes.”

I followed him his talks
always in San Francisco or close, a salty fog
shifting like phantoms in the parking lots
where he perched anew.
Spring geese lay fresh eggs and
now and then his own words took
possession of the dulcimer lyrics.
He shared his reflections
and I snatched at them,
his folk poems, anecdotes, stories
of sea mammals and beaches, particularly
that one I always read to
potential lovers, I hoped they would think me
deep and
easily moved. I am when I watch his story beneath my elbows,
The Dead Seal Near McClure’s Beach
I cry
as if a child again saddened by that lullaby

of fallen babies
and cradles
and all. It’s so sad the dead seal

He is so sad to find it there dead, dying,
still alive it surprises him so he feels
“as if a wall of my room had fallen away.”

Geoducks grow large with priapism
through the undulating sand—now large
enough for soup and
he had all but vanished from the horizon
(The reading schedule was bare) but
he surfaced like the far-off
submarine periscope in war movies,
clanging drums and
moving men up mountains.
Wild men taking back male impulses and banging them
into shape like
so many harriers, fitting the shoe tight.
Nothing loose will do and the girls
are better off plucking the
strings of the dulcimer
lapping the loins of Neruda and Lorca
without his help as they
whisper their delight into their hands
alone.

Robert Bly, what unnamed chorus or
menagerie back up your words now?
And have I yet thanked you for
offering your arm and showing me the colors
of the flame within the fire?

—————————————————-

Two days later he wrote me back:

Dear Lisa,

Thank you so much for writing me and sending me the poem, which
brings up by itself many memories I have of reading  in California,
presenting Rilke for the first time, plucking away at my out of tune
dulcimer.  I like to remember the dead seal near McClure’s Beach — I
mean the poem, not the dead seal.  You’re wondering what unnamed
chorus or menagerie back up my words now.  I’m being supported by the
poetic form the Muslims developed, the ghazal.  I’m sending along a
poem, the last one in a book of poems called MY SENTENCE WAS A
THOUSAND YEARS OF JOY.

STEALING SUGAR FROM THE CASTLE

We are poor students who stay after school to study joy.
We are like those birds in the India mountains.
I am a widow whose child is her only joy.

The only thing I hold in my ant-like head
Is the builder’s plan of the castle of sugar.
Just to steal one grain of sugar is a joy!

Like a bird, we fly out of darkness into the hall,
Which is lit with singing, then fly out again.
Being shut out of the warm hall is also a joy.

I am a laggard, a loafer, and an idiot.  But I love
To read about those who caught one glimpse
Of the Face, and died twenty years later in joy.

I don’t mind your saying I will die soon.
Even in the sound of the word soon, I hear
The word you which begins every sentence of joy.

“You’re a thief!” the judge said.  “Let’s see
Your hands!”  I showed my callused hands in court.
My sentence was a thousand years of joy.

With good wishes,
Robert

RIP Master Bly. May your joyous words live on for a thousand years.

 

 

What’s Going On, Lisa? Part 2

Hi there. Thanks for asking.

The last time I posted about my summer adventures was September, 2019, and well, I figured I might as well catch you up again.

To be sure: this past summer was a whole lot different than the summer of ’19. Two summers ago I wrote about, among other things, getting facials and seeing old friends; hiking in Lake Tahoe and planning college visits with my high school junior. It was an easier time. Fear of dying from a virus certainly was not on our collective minds. Back then the future seemed bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I was confident my newly-revised novel would interest an agent. I moved my mother, who was steadily declining from dementia, into a new, purportedly safe and supportive memory-care facility.

Before

After

After

Then, as 2019 meandered into 2020, the universe began to shift. In January, I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Cutaneous B-Cell Lymphoma. Given that it wasn’t supposed to kill me, we kept our February-break plans and flew to Isla Mujeres with Loy’s pal Ella to celebrate Loy’s 18th birthday.

We spent a week lazing about on beaches, eating street tacos, and petting dogs. It was while we were in Mexico that the word COVID began to enter our lexicon.

Little did I know, as we boarded our flight from Cancun to Montreal, that as 2020 rolled on, I’d be

  • canceling all social plans;
  • buying an oximeter;
  • quitting my volunteer work for Feeding Chittenden;
  • watching countless YouTube videos to learn how to turn bandanas and old yoga pants into face masks;
  • borrowing every Louise Penny novel from a neighbor who’d leave them on her front porch. I’d return them with a thank-you note stuck inside. We have yet to actually meet;
  • witnessing my daughter’s graduation from high school through the window of a car; 

  • washing all my groceries in hot soapy water;
  • fearing ever leaving my house (more than I normally do);
  • meditating, reading about meditating, and doing walking meditations for hours on end so as to counter my ever-growing stress and anxiety;
  • undergoing two radiation treatments to my skull which would render me partially bald, but also send my cancer into remission;
  • trying out so many Korean recipes that the owner of the local Asian grocery store would greet me by name;
  • subscribing to a dozen YouTube fitness channels so I could work my body in the bowels of our basement. Some of my favorites included:

Tracy Steen
Burpee Girl
Caroline Girvan 
nourishmovelove
Body Project
Tiff x Dan

  • moving my college freshman into a rental house in South Burlington so that she and three roommates could “attend” college remotely;
  • helping a lovely woman (who I only knew virtually) determine whether or not her life story was worth writing about (it is); 
  • having to say goodbye to my mother on FaceTime, after she—along with a dozen other residents—contracted Covid-19.

Then, as 2020 meandered into 2021, hope sprung eternal. As did my hair. By then we’d stopped wiping down our milk cartons with bleach and knew the difference between N95 and KN95. Because our newly-elected president was far far better than the one who came before him, we allowed ourselves to dream of better days ahead. We all got vaccinated (okay: not all of us got the shots, but most of the people I had any desire to see again chose to trust the science). We started to envision what it would feel like to hug our friends again.

We made summer plans.

Which brings me to the actual catch-up part. Here is how this summer, the summer of 2021, went down. I

  • adapted many of my favorite recipes so that my home-again vegetarian child would eat more than mac and cheese for dinner;
  • rearranged my office;
  • drank a lot of gin;
  • ate at a restaurant for the first time in many months. Outside. With my friend, Margot;
  • revised my novel (yet again) and started writing a book of essays;
  • finally got to know (and adore) our house/cat-sitter Jenny. Every summer since moving to Burlington we’ve traveled west to see friends and family; have ourselves some adventures. Back in 2013, when we first needed to find someone to watch over our domain, we replied to Jenny’s Craigslist ad. Jenny, a young poetess who teaches in Arcata, got her undergrad degree at University of Vermont and because she still maintains some strong ties to the city, she wanted to spend her summers here. Other than the summer of 2020 (the summer that never was), she has been doing just that. In our house. In January, when the fate of the universe was still decidedly undecided, Jenny wrote and asked, “You still going away this summer? Am I coming?” Being the perpetual perseverator that I am, I replied, “I have no idea, but yeah, maybe. I guess. I mean, sure.”

    Jenny arrived in the middle of June. Loy and Victor did go west, but I was still too afraid to venture forth. So, Jenny and I hung out together. I cooked. She fed the cats at night. We binged on Netflix shows. We fell into a comfortable routine, like college kids in a dorm slowly getting to know one another. Other than her 20-minute-long showers in the mornings, I warmed to her presence. When Loy came back from California, she and Jenny bonded like two kittens from different litters thrown into the same cage at the humane society. They shared their passions for horror films, 70s-style clothing, falafels, and all things animals. By the time Jenny left in August, she’d become like a daughter to me and a big sister to Loy;
  • pickled every kind of vegetable that grew up from the ground;
  • renewed my subscription to the CALM meditation app;
  • doomscrolled;
  • became estranged from a couple of folks I used to think of as friends;
  • shoved Q-Tips into my nostrils and twirled them around before placing them into test tubes—just to be sure I was still negative;
  • booked an Airbnb on the Connecticut River in New Hampshire. I biked, hiked, wrote, napped and kayaked for four blissful days;

  • got a haircut so the post-cancer hair kinda sorta looked like it blended with the old hair;
  • put on my brave face, covered it with an KN95 mask, and flew to San Diego at the end of August to memorialize my mother with my younger brother Scott’s family. We’d planned to spread Mom’s ashes in the ocean but when I pictured the crowded beach and the ashes gusting back into our faces, I decided we needed an alternative plan. After spending the day swimming in the ocean and eating really good deli sandwiches, Scott called me the next morning and said, “I just had a dream where Mom and I were at the La Costa Country Club and she asked me to dance. She loved that place. We should scatter her ashes there.”

    She did love that place; loved telling people she lived in the same hood as the world-famous, ultra-posh resort (newly renamed Omni La Costa Resort & Spa). After my dad left her she used to go dancing at the nightclub. One time I joined her and there we were sitting at the bar, scouting potential dance partners when, who should walk in, holding the hand of his new girlfriend, but my father. My mother, her mouth fixed in an angry sneer, went up to him, said, “This is my spot. You do not get to come here anymore,” and then threw her drink into his face.

    It was the perfect spot to spread her ashes.

    We met in the parking lot. Scott had the enormous bag of ashes my uncle had mailed him. The only scoops we could find were two plastic water cups we’d grabbed from a take-out taco spot (Mom would have appreciated that, given her love of tacos). Scott took one. I held the other. And then, while the seven of us strolled around the grounds, quietly talking, Scott and I stealthily dipped and sprinkled, dipped and sprinkled as we went. Next to that fountain. Over the arbor. Under the bench. In front, near the entrance. By the steps leading up to the bar—where she met more than a few of her post-dad lovers.

  • traveled an hour and a half northeast to The Claremont Colleges and moved Loy into her awesome (SINGLE) dorm room at Scripps College, the all-female college in the consortium. It was hot that day, like 107 degrees hot. And the AC in her building was broken. While Loy and Victor unpacked the three enormous bags of dorm room paraphernalia which Delta kindly flew across the country, I sat in the hallway, sweat pouring down into my eyes, trying to put together a fan we’d picked up at Target. For the life of me, it wouldn’t work. Finally, cursing through my frustration, I realized that two pieces were missing. Dammit. I drove to the nearest Target, exchanged it for a new one, then, on the brilliant advice of my partner, opened the box before driving away. Sure enough, the same two pieces were missing.

    With Loy finally settled (in front of a working fan), we said our goodbyes. It was both an exciting and stunningly melancholy moment: the moment I knew it was time to step aside and let my child make her way forward. I’d helped raise my baby through to adulthood. I’d tried to give her all the skills she needed to make sense of the world. I’d loved her fiercely (sometimes in unhealthy ways). I’d taught her right from wrong. I’d instilled in her a sense of curiosity, and a thirst for the written word. I’d laughed at her lame jokes. Oohed over her mediocre artwork. Cheered from the shore as she rowed toward finish lines. Applauded as she bowed after performing a Strauss concerto. Supported her as she protested society’s injustices. Held her when her heart broke.

    Her presence in my life has been nothing short of magical. I cannot wait to see what the future has in store for my daughter and that astonishing mind of hers;

  • drove 6.5 hours (it should have only taken 4.5 hours but damn, traffic in CA is crazy bad) to Morro Bay, where I spent 5 delectable, fog-shrouded days with my old college roommate and good pal, Sue. Her house was a block from the beach, so when we weren’t catching up, or she wasn’t cooking for me or baking amazing loaves of bread, or bringing me to see the elephant seals and otters, (or teaching me how to keep guacamole looking and tasting fresh for days by pouring a layer of milk over it), I’d either hike along the high cliffs, or grab a chair, a sweatshirt, and a book, and spend hours on her quiet stretch of beach, close to the fuming sea and flocking birds;
  • hugged Sue goodbye and drove south to Santa Barbara, where I met up with my BFF, Lori, who I usually spend my summers in Lake Tahoe with (it’s her cabin). Lori had generously used up a few thousand of her American Airlines miles to book us into a lovely inn right across the street from West Beach and Stearns Wharf. We got takeout tacos (there’s most def a pattern there) and had a picnic on the beach. We lounged around the salt water pool, thankfully devoid of other guests. One morning we strolled to the end of Point Castillo and came upon a TV reporter setting up his camera. Coincidentally, it was the two-year anniversary of the sinking of the MV Conception. We stood around with our hands in our pockets as the local city councilwoman paid tribute to the 34 people who died in the fire. It was a sad ending to an otherwise super fun (but too-short) time spent with the girlfriend I fell for in a prenatal yoga class so many years ago;  

  • silently cursed the couple with whom I shared a row on my cross-country flight back to Vermont. They spent the entire 5 hours eating and drinking and not wearing their masks.

While the summer of 2021 had its fair share of marvelous moments, it was anything but typical. No matter where I went or what I did I found myself on guard; cautious. I fretted in every airport and on every airplane because of all the below-the-nose mask-wearers. I still kept a wide berth when passing people while walking in town, or hiking along beach cliffs. I never ate or drank indoors. There was less of a sense of ease. Less joy. Less just being.

Maybe I was/am too paranoid about catching Covid. I’m in that class of folks with an “underlying condition,” so, yeah, I’m extra fearful. (If I were to lose my sense of taste and/or smell I think I would roll into a ball and cry until my tears turned to dust.)

Like everyone else on the planet, I want everything to be normal again.

  • I want to stop worrying;
  • I want to stop being angry at the unvaccinated sick people who are sucking up all the attention and making it hard for people with cancer and other ailments to get the medical care they need;
  • I want my friends in Australia to be able to leave their homes again;
  • I want my older brother, who lives in Missouri, to be able to play cards with his buddies again;
  • I want to stop having to tell the person in line behind me to “please back up”;
  • I want to go see the Vermont Symphony Orchestra perform in October, but I know I probably won’t;
  • I want to bring my laptop to a café where I can sit for hours drinking coffee and writing;
  • I want people to stop being on opposite sides of the equation;
  • I want peace and love and understanding;
  • I want to stop having to wear a fucking mask.

I do believe things will get better. I do. I believe this nightmare will become but a memory: maybe not a distant one, but it will lose its grip over the planetary psyche. We will all start living with less fear, and we will begin to plan for future adventures. In fact, this past week I started volunteering again, and I’m already fantasizing about trips to Patagonia and the Scottish Highlands and Australia.

The summer of 2021 was a different kind of summer.
It was the summer of uncertainty. 
The summer of truths and lies. 
It was the summer of small steps and big changes.
It was the summer of goodbyes.

 

 

 

 

The Sound of Mike

Reb Frost “Blonde Girl on 107 Bus Montreal” Used with permission

On the fifth and final morning of the silent meditation retreat, the people talked.

And talked.

And talked.

For five days I’d floated about the Santa Sabina Retreat Center in San Rafael in an almost soundless bubble. Even though I was there with more than fifty other humans, I hardly noticed their existence. As per the rules, we ate our meals in silence. We made no eye contact when passing one another in the hallways, or while strolling meditatively around the fragrant gardens surrounding the former mission. I had a roommate in the small upstairs room overlooking the outdoor eating area, but her presence held the weight of a tissue. We never so much as smiled or nodded at one another. I heard her whenever she came into the room or went out. I listened to the rustle of her body as she dressed, or tried to gain comfort beneath the polyester sheets at night, but I didn’t affix meaning to the sounds. It was as though I was bunking with a ghost.

On the final day, just as I was beginning to pack up my clothes and toiletries, the vow of silence was officially “broken” and the bubble burst open. I closed the window, but it did not stop the unrelenting patter of voices from seeping up, like the smell of cooking grease, from the garden below. Wanting to hold on to the peaceful state I’d attained during the previous five days, I pushed my way through the clusters of chattering huggers without so much as a backward glance.

As I walked toward the bus stop a little over a mile away, sweat began to pool beneath the shoulder straps of my backpack, making them slide off my slick skin. I thought about stopping and putting on a shirt with sleeves; instead I looped my thumbs under the straps and trudged onward. A man watering his slaked garden waved to me and said, “Hi.” Having no hand available, I lifted my chin in greeting then looked away, concerned he’d think me rude for saying nothing. For not returning his wave.

So much for letting go of my stories, I thought as I headed downhill. I’d just paid a lot of money to sit in silence and eat tasteless vegan food so that I could learn how to quell the incessant fear, the self-doubt. I’d meditated for hours at a stretch. Listened intently to the dharma talks. Practiced self-compassion. Equanimity. I thought I GOT IT. Finally understood what it truly means to LET GO. To live in the moment. To be mindful.

So why the fuck was I worried whether or not a chin nod had been enough?

“Ugh,” I muttered, stopping mid-stride, surprised by the sound of my own voice. I hadn’t heard myself speak in five days and hearing the guttural grunt hit the air sort of repulsed me. I wondered what it would be like to stay silent forever.

When I reached the transit center I was relieved that no one else was waiting for the airport shuttle. I unloaded my pack onto the concrete bench, sat down next to it and looked at my phone, making a conscious effort to not take it out of airplane mode. I still wasn’t ready to engage in the noise of life. I wanted to linger in my quiet cocoon for as long as possible.

When the airporter arrived, the driver emerged and opened the baggage compartment. I smiled at him, tossed in my pack and climbed aboard. Given that I get massively bus sick and needed to be able to look out the window, I immediately grabbed the front seat to the right of the driver’s seat.

Once settled I glanced backwards, stunned to see that I was the sole passenger. “Yes!” my inner voice shouted, excited that I would have yet another hour of calm. I slouched back and stared straight ahead, regarding the landscape’s constantly shifting motifs with a renewed sense of wonder. The gas stations, markets and malls, with their brightly-colored signage, dazzled my eyes. The mottled greens and browns of the trees and hills and empty fields relaxed me at first, but then I found myself fixating on the precariousness of their borders. How long would those interstitial swatches of nature be able to stave off the ever-encroaching development surrounding them? If I were to pass by this same stretch of highway in two years’ time would that field of wild poppies instead be an In-N-Out?

I shook my head, blinking back my cynicism. Five days of learning to let go of fear should not, I vowed there and then, go to waste. I needed to stop dwelling in the past and worrying about the future. I needed to stay present. Mindful. Observing without the need to name or care. Open awareness, Lisa. Open freakin’ awareness.

I sighed, slapped my feet up against the metal divider in front of me, and breathed deep.

“You on your way home or are you going on vacation?”

The bus driver was speaking to me. He was asking me a direct question.

I panicked. My mind raced. Did I dare say, “Um, I’ve taken a vow of silence?” Wait: I could write it on a piece of paper: let him know I was mute. I fumbled into my purse, feeling around for a pen and pad of paper, acutely aware of the seconds ticking by. What was the reasonable amount of time one should allow to lapse before having to answer a simple question? I had no idea but I was certain I’d exceeded it.

I looked at him, helpless. He was, as expected, focused on the road ahead. Did he just shrug? Had I insulted him? Slighted him with my cold shoulder as I had the man with the garden hose?

Fuck.

“Home,” I said, the word creaking out of me like sludge through an old pipe.

“Where’s home?”

“Vermont.”

“Cool. That’s one place I’ve never been.”

He was heavy-set with large, jowly cheeks and bright friendly eyes—eyes I saw for the half a  second he glanced over his shoulder towards me.

Was that enough? Had I provided the sufficient number of replies to appease the politeness gods? Could I now return to wrapping my mind with cotton-batting?

“What do you do in Vermont?”

Apparently not.

“I write books,” my mouth said before I could stop it, knowing my statement would inevitably lead to perpetuated curiosity. Had I said “seamstress” or “bank teller” or “dental hygienist” I might have stopped the convo in its tracks. But no; I said writer which meant, of course, he was going to ask—

“What kind of books do you write?”

I subtly dropped my chin down to my chest, resigned to the cessation of stillness. “I’ve published two novels and a memoir so far.”

“Memoir, huh? You wrote about your own life?”

Option 1, wherein I have a good chance of putting this thing to rest: “Yeah, it’s about how I hated my life so much I ran away and then realized running doesn’t make you hate your life any less.”

Anticipated reply to Option 1: “I’m sorry,” he says, changing lanes and growing quiet because no one in their right mind wants to engage with an angry bitch.

Option 2, wherein I am a bit more gentle: “It’s about how my family and I moved to Bali.”

Anticipated reply to Option 2: “Whoa! Bali. What was that like?”

I went with Option 2, and after he asked me what that was like, I told him it was great and not-so-great and then I threw in a short anecdote about my daughter’s bamboo bedroom getting overrun with biting ants every night, quickly cutting to the chase by acknowledging how happy I was when we finally escaped back to the United States.

“I’m definitely going to read that book.” He shifted in his seat, whether from excitement or to inject some blood flow into his large bottom, I wasn’t sure, but I felt all at once drawn to the man’s warmth and enthusiasm. Enough so that I chucked my vow of silence into the seat behind me and said, “I’m Lisa, by the way.”

“Mike.”

“Hi, Mike. How long you been a bus driver?”

“Five years, but it’s just for money. What I really want to do is voice work.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know, voice-overs, like in commercials and documentaries and stuff. I’ve been taking classes in the city. I mean, sure, I’d love to be a real actor, but this is pretty fun.”

“Why don’t you be a real actor then?”

He looked back at me and smirked. “Um,” he said jerking a thumb in his own direction.

Did Mike think that because he was a hefty guy, it was a forgone conclusion he’d be barred from the sphere of visual entertainment? I didn’t buy it. “What? What’s stopping you from trying?” I said, pushing at the delicate edge of his obvious insecurities. “I mean, you’ll never know unless you give it a go, right?” I almost added, “Television and movies are teeming with bodies of all shapes and sizes,” but that felt patronizing so I kept quiet.

He laughed. “Nah. I mean sure, I wouldn’t mind being in front of the camera, but my voice, you know, my voice is where my power is.”

His baritone voice was indeed powerful. Rich. The more I listened to him speak the more I felt—I don’t know—soothed. Here, I’d been wallowing in the purity and pricelessness of inner stillness, but now I wanted more sound. More of Mike’s sound, anyway.

“I can be anybody with my voice,” he continued, wanting as much as I did, to face me so we could engage in a real tête-à-tête. I could tell it was both annoying as well as probably uncomfortable, for him to keep twisting to his right.

“And driving this bus, you know, I meet lots of different kinds of people and that helps.”

Illustration by Eleanor Davis. Used with permission

“How so?”

“It, um, well. I live alone and when I’m not driving or taking classes I spend as much time as I can in nature. I go camping a lot. But sometimes—not all the time mind you—someone sits where you’re sitting and we get to chatting and I discover something new. Someone new. I hear their voice, like your voice, the sound of it, the way you pronounce things. Every voice is like a new story to me. A new world of sound.”

Rather than responding, I sat back and stared out the window. I suddenly had a feverish urge to write a short story about Mike. About a passenger, a stranger, falling in love with Mike during the long bus ride to the airport. It would feature a woman named Julie, a sad woman in her late 40s who’s just come from a groovy meditation retreat. She signed up hoping to find happiness, as well as a lover who wore loose cotton drawstring pants and whose aura aligned with hers. After finding neither, she boards the bus to the airport. She gets on further up north, in Santa Rosa, giving her and Mike more time to get to know one another. Mike asks her about her life in New Jersey. After five days of silence, she is happy to talk. They share preliminaries. As their journey continues, the conversation grows more intimate. Mike tells her about his yearning to be something other than a bus driver. The more he opens up about his dream to become a Voice Over star, the more aware Julie becomes of her own lost desires. At one point, she tells Mike, she dreamt of being a personal coach.

No: she wanted to be a pianist, but an accident in her twenties destroyed any chance of that.

Mike is sympathetic. He tells her how sorry he is and it’s as if his voice is a warm blanket smothering the pain the of the past.

Their connection grows stronger with each passing mile and and it’s only when Julie looks out the window and notices a sign for San Jose, does she realize that Mike never exited for the Oakland airport. She’s both disconcerted and aroused by this strange turn of events.

“Where are we going, Mike?” she asks nervously.

“I’m not sure, Julie,” Mike says, “but I just decided that this is the last bus trip I’m taking. I’m thinking someplace south of the border. A nice beach somewhere sounds good.”

“Yeah,” Julie replies as she leans back against the seat. “It does sound good.”

***

By the time Mike pulled up to the curb and put the bus in park, I’d made a few changes to the plot, but, ultimately, I was quite pleased with myself for coming up with the idea.

I followed Mike out the door and stood by while he dragged my pack out of the belly of the bus. “So, it was nice meeting you, Lisa,” he said, adjusting his baseball hat.

“It was really nice meeting you, Mike. You know what? I’m going to write a story about a woman who boards your bus and the two of you fall in love and you don’t drop her at the airport. You just keep driving.”

Mike’s eyebrows raised, as did the corners of his mouth. “I’d sure like to read that story. But first I’m going to read your book.”

I gave him a business card. “I’d love that, Mike. Good luck with everything and keep in touch,” I said, slinging on my backpack.

***

Two months later I received an email from Mike:

Hi Lisa, In case you don’t remember who I am, I drove you to the Oakland airport on the Airport Express. I read your book Rash and wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed it. Normally when I read a book I know within the first 20 pages whether I can finish it or not. Your book had me in the first paragraph. I thought it was as well written as Jeannette Walls’s book. It just flowed so easily I felt as though I was in Bali at times.

Although i think your unhappiness and complaining was justified I still thill think Victor deserves a medal😂😂 He was getting it from all sides and I like knowing there are still people who have integrity and live by their principles.

LOVED THE BOOK . Thanks for introducing me to it.

By the way how is the short story coming?

If you remember I told you I am in the process of learning to be a Voice Over Actor and was wondering if you would mind giving me your opinion on a couple of scripts I recorded. I would be very interested to see what you think?

Mike

He sent along a photo of him holding my book.

Of course I listened to his recordings and they were really good. I said as much, and told him I had not yet written the story.

***

It’s been three years since I rode on Mike’s bus that hot summer day. Three years of not once thinking about our meeting, his voice, or the short story. But then, a few days ago I flashed on the memory and decided I needed to write that story because, damn, it was a good one. I sat down, started in, then hit a wall. Getting inside Julie’s head was hard. Her sadness weighed on my already too-heavy heart. Yeah: it’s been a hard year.

Instead, I Googled Mike. Turns out he did become a Voice Over actor.

I’m thrilled for Mike. I assume he will get hired by lots of companies because his voice truly is, as he says on his website, textured, authentic, and relatable. So much so that I was willing to emerge from my silent sanctum just so I could hear some more of it.

I’d tried so hard to keep out the noise of life. To reign in the chatter within and without. Yet, because I allowed myself to dwell in open awareness, I ended up finding a new—albeit momentary—friendship. Because I let go of my stubbornly-held expectations, I conjured up a sweet story about a broken woman who discovers solace in a bus driver’s song. A story that someday I might actually write.

Lost and Found

Vidmantas Goldberg “The Advice” Image used with permission.

It’s good, here with you
you in front
me in back
the dust behind us

You, with your backpack, green and hugging
your sweaty body as we chug
upwards
where even a rock or feather or piece of garbage
finds purchase because I say slow down, hold up, wait
so I can unzip the side pocket and stuff my treasure
or trash
or secret into that space and when I finish
when I store what I think needs keeping
I zip it closed, pat you on the shoulder and say
let’s go

And then, with the end nowhere in sight, I keep walking
and for a long time I wonder why I am here, now
with you, why you

why not someone else
someone else I know

And as I step forward I think about those people

I think about the friend who has stage 4 lung cancer but still knows Joy
And the friend who cooks me stew

I think about the friend who runs a non-profit
And the one who sent me flowers

I think about the friends who have lost their parents
who’d lost their pasts;
histories burned through by mitochondrial heat

I think about the friend who paints gentle landscapes
And the one who paints pain across a clean white sheet

I think about the friend who was once a lover
And the friend whose card never arrived

I think about the friend whose guide dog leads her through gardens in a distant land
And the friend whose daughter became a man

I think about the four friends I have who are doctors
Healing the sick, stemming the tide,
Catching babies with their gloved hands

As a dry wind rises to rinse the sweat from my neck
I think of my friends who work to change laws
And the friends who protect creatures who walk on all fours

I think of my friends who critique my words
And all the others who share their words

I think about the friend who adopted two babies
who have long since grown
And the friend in Peru sowing grief on her own

I think about a friend who shelters the homeless

And another who fixes computers
And another who sells computers

I think of my friend Igor

I think of the two lovelies I met in Mexico
As well as the friend who lives in Reno
And then
while stopping to retie my boots
I remember the friends I’ve had to let go

I think of a friend who works for a dentist
I think of my friend who is a dentist

I think of a friend who lost her two breasts
And the too many friends who have lost friends to death

I think of old friends who have since become new
The poet, the wealth manager, the Microsoft guru

And I think of the cousins who happen to be friends too

I think of my friend who writes stories for kids
And the one who buries the dead without cement lids

I think of the friend who at last found her one true love

Up ahead I see the lake, the sun spitting across its surface
Mayflies, alive for a second, crowding the luminous dermis

As we push ourselves toward the crest of the hill
I think of the friends I’ve never met
I see them I talk to them I write to them, yet
I have no idea how they smell
I’ve never watched them eat
I’ve never seen them walk into the room
I have no idea if they cross their legs while sitting or
If they pick at their cuticles while chatting on Zoom

I think of the many friends who have picked me up
As if I were a carelessly discarded gum wrapper or
a treasure; a pretty stone that is tucked into
the side pocket
zipped shut, safe
worthy enough to carry
like I carry them
once we leave the view from up high
and head back to the car.

I Couldn’t See The Moon

I watched the woman with the
pink pretty boots standing, trying to decide
whether or not to jump
but she jumped
And so I jumped.

Beneath the calm I saw her
           kick and writhe
I went below too
as if I’d be able to join her
although I knew
I’d see her again
on the surface
so I breathed
air, looked up, and saw the
night
the light, full and round, readying
my words my mouth to exclaim,
as if I’d been the one true discoverer,
“Look! There’s the moon!”
but I couldn’t
shout. I couldn’t lay claim.

My eyes found only
fog, as if
behind a milky gauze.

Blurb Your Enthusiasm

A woman in one of my Facebook writing groups recently solicited advice on how best to approach a “rockstar” level person for a blurb, given that she’s a “nobody.” I laughed when I read the post, remembering a time long ago…

…It’s 2005 and my second book/first novel is soon to be released and my editor is all askew with worry that I don’t have any blurbs for its back cover. She’d sent off 30 galleys to A-list writers, but none had yet to respond. I suspected not one of those 30 authors were going to put out.

Why? Mostly because I wasn’t part of the in-crowd. Much like what goes on in Hollywood, it all comes down to who you know, and I knew no one in the literosphere. (If you look at some of the “highly praised” novels on your bookshelf there’s a good chance you’ll see a lot of the same authors passing blurbs back and forth amongst themselves like massages in a college dorm.)

While attempting to secure my own valuations, my editor asked me to blurb a book by one of her authors. I said, “Of course,” since that was the polite thing to do. Ultimately, I found the book—a memoir about growing up on an Indian ashram—a little too self-absorbed. (This, from a writer who would go on to publish a self-absorbed memoir about living in a bamboo hut in Bali). As I needed all the good blurb karma I could round up I opined that the book was “wonderfully entertaining and wholly original.”

Once I realized that said blurb karma wasn’t going to kick in, I emailed A-list author Jennifer Weiner directly. Her (many bestselling) books had little in common with mine other than that they were both pigeon-holed as “chick-lit.” Her reply to my ask was curt, polite, and utterly forgettable. Interestingly, in an essay she wrote nine years later, she decries blurbs but goes on to say how sympathetic she is to blurb-seekers:

It’s hard out there for a new writer. It’s especially hard for new women writers who, statistics tell us, are less likely to get published or reviewed. If you’re lucky enough to be in a position to help, why wouldn’t you? I believe in karma, in paying it forward, in using whatever influence I have for good.

Not having been in the path of Weiner’s forward-paying behavior, I began to look further afield. I read a news clip about the actress Emma Thompson who said she adored traveling to  Zanzibar. Since my novel takes place almost entirely on the Tanzanian island, I felt it reasonable to ask a famous movie star to blurb a novel by an unknown writer.

A nobody.

As luck would have it, a writer friend of mine knew an agent who knew her agent who generously offered to send the book to her in London.

Alas. She didn’t blurb it, but she did mail me a lovely handwritten note on personal stationery:

By the time Emma’s (naturally we’re on a first-name basis) note arrived I’d received three good-enough blurbs: one from a local author whose reading I’d attended. The other two came from lesser-known writers enlisted by my editor. One called it a “sexy triumph.” The other stated that my “ambitious debut novel brims with heart and heartache.” (My assumption is that they, too, were trying to garner their own blurb karma.)

Did sales of my novel suffer because I didn’t get any rockstar blurbs? Maybe. It also might have been because it’s not a very good novel (please don’t tell my agent I said that). It started out great but then the editor who bought it in the first place left the publishing house for the opportunity to edit Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. The new editor eviscerated my plot, wanted more sex, and, well, that part of the story is best left for another time…

I will tell that Facebook writer that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to getting attention from A-listers. I will point out that it’s not going to be easy to extract blurbs from famous people, but I will encourage her to give it a try. I will remind her that even somebodies were once nobodies and maybe, just maybe, one of them will remember that and actually pay it forward.
—————-
This essay was also published in the 12/18/2020 edition of Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog.